Executives at the influential McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Virginia, hope a yearlong battle over church leadership will begin to resolve Sunday as the congregation votes on a new plan to elect its board of elders.
But a lawyer representing plaintiffs who have sued said their court battle will continue, seeking a redo that allows only members who had joined before a failed June 2021 election to cast ballots in the new election.
In the 2021 election, none of the candidates secured the 75% vote total the church’s constitution requires.
The 2021 vote became controversial after some members said the congregation’s leaders sought to introduce Critical Race Theory and other “woke” elements into a church previously known for its conservative evangelical Christian teachings.
Dissidents, including five members who are suing the church, say McLean Bible Church executives want to rig the election to favor its slate of elders.
“Rather than offer to do the right thing and actually redo the election properly, among the members properly active in June 2021, the Board has twice essentially stuffed the ballot boxes, adding hundreds of new members selected by the Board in December after litigation began, and proposing to add hundreds of new members selected by the Board in May, just before the proposed new vote.” a statement from the plaintiffs said. “All these hundreds of members who were unknown to [McLean Bible Church] last July would now be allowed to dilute the votes of people who were properly members last July. It is a complete bait-and-switch. If the Elders cannot win through destroying the secret ballot, they will win by stuffing the ballot boxes just before the vote.”
The 61-year-old congregation, founded by a group of five families seeking to form a non-denominational church, is best known for the ministry of the Rev. Lon Solomon, who pastored the congregation from 1980 to 2017.
Membership stands at about 3,000, with a weekly attendance that averages 10,000 people, a church source said. With its main campus in the Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, the church has satellite congregations in three other Virginia cities: Arlington, Lansdowne and Manassas, and one in Rockville, Maryland.
The church attracted attention in 2019 when then-President Trump attended a Sunday morning worship service and was invited to the platform by the Rev. David Platt, Mr. Solomon’s successor, who prayed for the president. After criticism, Mr. Platt, who was not available to speak for this article, conceded the prayer had angered some members.
The church is proposing a new election supervised by a “neutral observer” that would not only mark a re-run of the disputed 2021 election for three seats on the elder board but also hold a vote for the 2022 slate of elders. Traditionally, the church elects three members of its six-member board each year.
The Rev. Wade Burnett, lead pastor for executive leadership at the church, said the election plan would “give the plaintiffs what they’re asking for and re-vote on the same elders, using all the things they want, like secret ballots and somebody to observe it.”
“If the church [members are] willing to do that, then it moots the lawsuit, it makes the lawsuit unnecessary because the church has an opportunity now to not only address all the things they’re saying we need to do, but also to express unity that this is indeed who we want to lead the church.”
But attorney Rick Boyer, who represents the five members suing McLean Bible Church, said the new plan is a ruse: “The leadership of the board of elders [does] not want transparency, they do not want accountability.”
Mr. Boyer said the plan is “a power play that they have to win at all costs. And it’s not about following the constitution of the church or the rights of the members.”
Another former McLean member also rejected the plan.
“This is a manufactured, at best, kind of ‘nuclear option’ that they’re trying to employ,” said Jeremiah Burke, a former McLean Bible Church member who is not a party to the lawsuit. “It’s a secretive way to change the [church’s] constitution without telling the congregation that they’re changing the constitution.”
Mr. Burnett said that if McLean Bible Church consented to the lawsuit’s demand that ballots be limited to a certain group of members, it would divide a body of believers.
“We’re not going to create two classes of members,” Mr. Burnett said Friday. “And we’re certainly not going to agree that a state court judge has authority to say to various members of our church, ‘You can vote, but you cannot, even though you’re both members of MBC. If you state before God that you are an active member of MBC, including the plaintiffs, then you can vote.”
Mr. Burnett said he hopes all of the church’s members can be reconciled.
“I would love to see full reconciliation and restoration,” he said. “When these folks are together at the grocery store, my hope is that we get back to a place where they have a great conversation with one another and don’t just walk past each other. A lot of these relationships go back a long way. That’s where my heart is as a pastor.”